Secrets & Lies

(Mike Leigh, UK/France, 1996)


I try to stay open to almost everything I see depicted in films – no matter how alien, inexplicable, or confronting I may find certain acts, behaviours, or lifestyles. In fact, I believe most filmgoers function this way, as if they have an innate gift for being able to abstract what they see in a film, or what they read in a fiction: to instantly place what they behold or experience in art into some sort of frame, to grasp it as a kind of artifice.


Every week at the movies (it’s virtually every day for me), filmgoers witness acts of violence that rarely wound or hurt them; they take in sexual practices and proclivities that are far removed from their own; they run the gauntlet of the most amoral, criminal and transgressive social gestures, and they come out of the picture theatre happy and refreshed. Many of the greatest mysteries and pleasures of art and culture are locked up in those everyday paradoxes of consumption.


I am deeply interested in what could be called the limit-moment of that everyday experience: the moment when this system trembles and starts to break down. There are certain topics, subject-matter or depicted acts in cinema that have the power to make viewers squeamish, troubled and hyper-critical. The bother and pain of confronting them makes the audience ask, in a worried way: why show that in a movie? What’s the point? The sensation and the spectacle that is usually loved in a movie suddenly gives the filmgoer, at these moments, a cold chill; the audience finds itself feeling embarrassed, violated and scandalised – exploited and dirtied, somehow.


The list of these particular, sensitive topics, subject-matter and depicted acts vary from filmgoer to filmgoer. For a long time, for instance, and still a little today, I objected to just about any film that showed hard drug taking in an irresponsible and glamorous light; the romance of it offended me, and the brute sight of those hypodermic needles going into veins in arms sickened me. However, Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) and Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992) may have cured me of that particular moral qualm.


For many people I know – people perfectly open to just about any sexual depiction in cinema – rape is an incredibly sensitive screen topic. It doesn’t matter what the intentions of the filmmaker are, what the likely point of the movie is, or what its tone is meant to be; even films about the utter horror of rape tend to buy into some voyeuristic, sensational fascination with the violence of the act, and that is beyond the pale for some. The sexual abuse of children is another impossibly difficult screen topic for some viewers; in this case, as with rape movies, the level of white-hot social hysteria around the issue, all the taboos and fears, all that horror, turns any movie into a spluttering, hysterical, insensitive mess – some bull in the china shop of human distress.


Drugs rape, and child abuse – I’m coming out with a litany of transgressive, taboo topics.  But the trembling, disquieting experience that can happen at the limit of our viewing tolerance sometimes points to the completely opposite end of our social experience. Sometimes it is the movies that are most conservative – films that earnestly preach conservative values and try to raise the bastion for certain basic, key, universal human values – which really make me sick. I am not trying to be flippant or superior here: I am not talking about seeing Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) and finding it a bad film or an unpleasant experience – rather, I am talking about a real dilemma. The most seriously, intelligently conservative films do not, of course, think of themselves as conservative films, pushing some party-line ideology inherited from God, the State or History. They are films trying to talk me around, to convince me of the worth or goodness of certain ancient or established values. They are films trying to remind me of something that I have forgotten, lost, or too-quickly excluded from my life; films that, at their best, can tug at me in a worrying way, like some echo from an old and stable world that I have never felt a part of – “never properly introduced” to it, as the title says at the start of the old Nicholas Ray film, They Live by Night (1948).


If I sound a little intimate and cryptic at this point, it is because I am very near the zone of personal confession – but I’m not at all certain what it is exactly that I need or want to confess. It is like the lyrics of a James Taylor song: “It was something I only dreamed of/Something that I’m not quite sure of/Something that I’ll never tell you about”. Here’s the gist of what is eating at me (the gist and no more): one of the main conservative topics in cinema that makes me feel funny and squeamish, offended and objecting, is the topic of family. To be more specific, I have a temperamentally hard time with movies that try to tell me, to convince me, that it is my duty to love the family that I was born into. And even worse (far worse) are the films that try to convince me that the highest fulfilment of my life will be to start my own family, and to honour that family as well, no matter what.


Undoubtedly, some will find my resistance to the theme of family perverse – perhaps it is – but I have no choice but to embrace that particular perversity. I am very aware of this when I compare my reaction to the majority, consensus evaluation of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. I have many fairly objective, aesthetic, film-critical reasons for negatively judging this film: it is a rather flawed piece of work. But I also know, within myself, that this is one of those conservative movies – a surprise coming from an old British rad like Leigh – which is trying to put its arm around me and whisper sweet, reassuring things in my ear: things I don’t want to hear, that happen to disturb, affront and anger me.


Let me clarify: Secrets & Lies is not simply a film about family; it is about blood ties, the sanctity of blood ties, and the need to honour and mend those ties whenever and wherever they are tragically broken. Blood ties is one of the great themes of modern art and modern life because it is among the most controversial: it instantly embroils the viewer in a life-and-death struggle over exactly how one defines a family these days. What makes someone else family, a member of your family? Where does that bond come from, how is it constituted? Does it come from blood, inheritance, or the act of birth? Or does it come from choice, will, shared experience, a fully conscious commitment to another person? Each time that public debate arises over some new, different or radical kind of family unit – to take the most familiar chestnut, gay families/marriages – the blood tie problem is stirred yet again.


I know that the actual human experience of family life is not limited to some ludicrously simple binary opposition, such as: the family you didn’t ask to be a part of (your blood family) versus the one that you choose to create and be a part of. I know that the joys and pains of shared experience can transcend the mere fact of blood ties; that real intimacy can happen even within the most normal and traditional of families. Even talking about family in this somewhat dour, distant, sociological way makes me feel like Ross McElwee in his intimate personal-diary film, Time Indefinite (1993). There is a wonderful scene in that movie where McElwee is suddenly very weighed down by the emotional burdens that come with his own family, and particularly by the heavy prospect of introducing his new partner to his whole forbidding family clan at some horrendous Christmas get-together. Experiencing a sudden epiphany, McElwee sets up his little camera, goes and sits in front of it, and starts pouring out all of his negative feelings and thoughts about the very idea of family. Suddenly, his voice-over appears on the soundtrack from months later, and McElwee begins making fun of himself. “Listen to this, this bit is rich”, he implores the viewer in voice-over, and then fades back up his own droning voice as he’s slumped over in his chair, talking earnestly about the “the prison of the family, the gulag of the family” …


While I may recognise something of myself in McElwee’s mocking self-portrait, I am still resistant to Secrets & Lies. This film takes on one of those extremely sensitive areas: the topic of adopted children who go in search of their real, biological parents. Regularly, I encounter some strenuously optimistic, happy-feely television documentary that shows somebody who searches for and finds their real mother or father. In these programs, the whole situation works out great, and there is teary love and hugs, mutual acceptances and emotional accommodations all round. I am always disturbed by such programs, and suspicious too; there has got to be an element of delusion, some incredible forcing of the truth, or some outright hoodwinking going on. While I am perverse when it comes to the question of family, I don’t think I am alone in my doubts and suspicions on this particular score. The obsession in our culture with such stories of repairing blood ties, of healing broken, dysfunctional families is a kind of myth, an almost desperate, grasping fantasy. While I respect that yearning – and have felt it myself – I am really troubled by it. I treasure the little resistances I find to this obsessive myth, like Bernardo Bertloucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996), where a girl finds her real father but dismisses this fact as any weighty or significant truth. In Stealing Beauty, the big family secret remains a secret, and that is (perversely) a beautiful, fitting, absolutely positive resolution to Bertolucci’s very open-minded meditation on the idea of family.


Secrets & Lies plugs into the desperate fantasy of blood ties. Leigh   speaks of it as a film about identity, the need to know and integrate your life, the concept of real origin. The plot revolves around Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptise), a black more-or-less yuppie optometrist who, in her adulthood, decides to seek out her real mother. This turns out to be Cynthia (overplayed by Brenda Blethyn), a highly-strung, ever-teary member of a typical white, working-class family. And when I say typical, I mean typical for a Mike Leigh film – everybody in this family is tense, terse, miserable and unfulfilled on every level, at work and in intimate relationships.


The film shows what happens to this family when Hortense shows up in its midst – at first she is hidden away by Cynthia, then undercover at a rather apocalyptic family barbeque, and finally, out in the open. Leigh does not play this as any kind of soap opera; he deliberately makes almost nothing of the racial difference between white and black in this situation, for there are other ‘secrets and lies’ that are lying in the collective family closet – but they turn out, well over two hours in, to be fairly mundane affairs.


Yet, it isn’t possible to fairly criticise a Leigh movie for being mundane because, really, mundanity is his beat: he is one of the premier realists of contemporary cinema. In Secrets & Lies, Leigh brings to the observation of daily lives and rounds his usual spiky affection and tough humour. However, I find the scenes devoted to Maurice (played by Leigh regular Timothy Spall) and his photographic studio pretty thin, uninspired and repetitious.


As an artist – and he is an interesting and admirable artist in some ways, if insufferable in others – Leigh has arrived at a strange, uncertain point. Since the end of the ‘80s, he has lost that abrasive, anti-Thatcherite political anger that once motivated films like Meantime (1983). He has been striking out in different directions ever since. His confronting film Naked (1993) – about which I have extremely mixed feelings – revelled in a kind of bombastic, the-world-is-shit, punk nihilism. Secrets & Lies however, goes completely the other way; it is a kind of sentimental dream about family love, an almost preachy drama about the need for transparency, authenticity and acceptance in emotional family dealings.


While it is nothing like a Hollywood fantasy of family, there is a touch of Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983) somewhere underneath all of the grime and droll humour. Secrets & Lies starts out nothing like that but, progressively, it becomes increasingly soft-hearted and soft-headed. All the complications, binds and resistances that determine people’s pinched emotional reactions in the first half of the movie disappear far too easily and quickly in the second.


Leigh is often compared to directors such as John Cassavetes and Sean Penn because of his attachment to soul-searing emotion, and his willingness to arrive at a script only after intensive improvisational work with his actors. Also, this contentious theme of blood ties and other conceptions of family is central to movies like Cassavetes’ Love Streams (1984) and Penn’s The Crossing Guard (1995). Yet when I compare Leigh to these filmmakers, I see the central limitation of his famous method of filmmaking.


Leigh often discusses how his work with the actors on their characters starts six months before the shoot: they improvise and explore and, together, define a whole person in a specific social milieu. The results of this process are, on the whole, less exciting than they sound: the on-screen characterisation tends to be static and maddeningly repetitive. Each member of the cast has been encouraged to embody their character mainly through the constant exhibition of half a dozen behavioural tics, like the way in which Cynthia inserts the word “sweetheart” in every sentence she speaks in Secrets & Lies. This repetitive tic trait is Leigh’s presentation of everyday life; it is his ground-tone, the thick, heavy bedrock out of which, or on top of which, the story must emerge. The only time that this ground-tone breaks – and the only time the characters and actors change their mode – is for moments of extreme emotional release or confrontation: scenes of ranting, screaming, crying, confessing, or violating another person’s façade or mask. These are the kinds of big, painful moments of truth I adore in Penn’s or Cassavetes’ films, but in Leigh’s recent movies, I find them weak and unconvincing, inauthentic in some way – the deep emotional resonances are simply missing from his work.


That said, there are some superbly staged scenes in Secrets & Lies: the first nervous phone conversation between Hortense and Cynthia is really something, and the apocalyptic backyard barbecue, with all of the characters in the same frame, is wonderfully choreographed. Here Leigh is really thinking like a director: when he uses the framing or staging to dynamically reveal something in the way he sets up and moves his players, or the way he cuts between shots. Yet, on this level, for the most part, he is extremely uninventive: the camera is merely there to record the paces of the actors, and it all becomes like some draggy, artless telemovie.


Maybe these film-critic observations allow me to avoid confronting what really irks me about Secrets & Lies and Leigh’s films generally. I have always been bothered by the way he portrays women. His women are not bimbos, vamps or any of those old clichés; but they do tend to be victims, imploding in a crisis. Once Leigh has depicted them that way, he tends to blame and judge them for not trying harder, for not pulling up their bootstraps and facing life, like the anorexic teenage girl in Life is Sweet (1991), as well as the parade of hopeless, ever-violated masochistic women in Naked – a film that shades into outright misogyny on this plane.


On this level, I almost dreaded seeing Secrets & Lies; I feared it would be too preachy and judgemental about women and the life choices they make. And, as predicted, the film is rather like that. It is as if Leigh is booming to the mother-figure from on-high: accept thy daughter, thy daughter by blood! While to another female character he booms: have a child, woman, have a child and save your marriage, save that poor morose husband of yours from a life without kids! And because of my perverse anti-family stance, I resist these kinds of conservative injunctions – and I resent them, too.  

MORE Leigh: All or Nothing, Career Girls, Happy-Go-Lucky, Peterloo

Different Family Thoughts: Families and Friends (essay)

© Adrian Martin September 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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